The Magical World of Interest

As you may remember, a media firestorm erupted last week when Westpac announced it would charge interest on fees and interest on all Westpac Credit Cards. Westpac defended itself by saying this is standard practice among banks — but just how standard is it?

Well, it seems Westpac was right. Across the ‘Big 4’, interest is charged on interest and fees. And they’re not the only ones either, with the likes of American Express, Citibank and St.George all guilty of the same tactics.

But this isn’t all — while digging into the fine print about interest and fees, I discovered a myriad of sneaky tricks banks use in charging customers. Forget the trivial feats of magicians and illusionists like Blaine, Copperfield or Criss Angel; for real trickery you need look no further than your monthly credit card statement.

For example, a widespread ace you’ll find up providers’ sleeves involves the specific debts your repayments actually pay off. Most cards’ conditions require your repayments to go towards those purchases that attract the lowest rate. This makes any purchases made at a higher rate more likely to attract interest charges, as they are the last to be paid off.

Another little rabbit in the hat is the date from which interest is charged. Instead of charging interest from the date a transaction is posted to your statement, some providers charge from the date of transaction. While there’s only a few days’ difference, it can add up, especially for larger purchases.

And then there’s the cleverest banking sleight of hand — the ‘prestige’ in magician’s parlance. The typical 44-55 days interest-free period on purchases is often viewed by customers as a breather between spending and interest charges. But quite often this buffer pulls a disappearing act. If your balance is not paid in full by the due date, you’ll lose your interest free days with Commonwealth, ANZ and Westpac. NAB is more lenient, but you still have to maintain your monthly minimum repayment.

So what does this mean for your bottom line? If you lose your interest free days, your bank will levy interest comprising a total of daily interest charges on your purchases going all the way back to the date of purchase. While NAB and ANZ only charge this interest on the overdue amount, Westpac and Commonwealth Bank will charge the 55 days of interest retrospectively on the entire balance, even if minimum repayments are met. What’s more, you won’t get those interest-free days back until those old balances are paid in full. In some cases, such as BankWest, you’re required to pay two consecutive statements in full before they give you this ‘luxury’ back.

In The Prestige, the magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) warns us: “If anybody really believed the things I did on stage, they wouldn’t clap, they’d scream.” I’d be surprised if your next credit card statement was greeted with applause…

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The Magical World of Interest was last modified: June 29, 2015 by Yash Murthy

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